Chasing the Timeless Sound
This article first appeared in Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk!
There’s one term that’s a death nell when its associated with a record. It strikes fear in the hearts of producers, partly because nobody wants this brand, and partly because it’s incredibly difficult to define. As soon as you think you understand it, it’s gone in a puff of smoke. And as soon as you start thinking about it, everything sounds…
So, what does it mean? What is it when a song sounds “dated”? Let’s start with a dictionary definition.
That was easy! Dated means old. That means old stuff is dated, right? But old music doesn’t necessarily sound dated. New stuff that sounds old might sound dated, and it might sound “vintage”. So, using old techniques doesn’t always mean a track will sound dated.
If it did, that would mean that recording a live band in a studio would sound dated, because that’s been done to death – but it doesn’t work that way.
The fact is, “dated” is a lot like other subjective terms like “current”, “rockin”, “good”, or “bad”. What sounds dated to one person might sound fresh to someone else.
Maybe a better word for “dated” would be “unoriginal”.
One thing’s for sure. “Dated” is a real thing, just like “good” or “bad”, and you’ll know it when you hear it.
Does It Matter?
Leaving off trying to define it, does it matter if your song sounds dated? Not really. In the end if you love it, you made something worthwhile. End of story.
From a professional standpoint it can definitely matter, especially in pop.
The music business fraught with requests for tracks that “sound like” some famous artist. “In the vein of Drake”, “with an Ed Sheeran vibe”, etc. Many requests even include the term “current”.
Ironically, the more you chase trends, the more dated you’re likely to sound. Even if you manage to hit the mark now, an overly trendy production may not stand the test of time.
Mysterious as the notion of datedness may be, we have established a few things. First, it’s at least partially subjective. Next, it has something to do with being unoriginal (another nebulous term). Third, you’ll know it when you hear it. And finally, chasing trends can lead to future datedness.
Other things seem clear. The latest cool computer trick – dubstep wobble base, for example – may not stand up long. On the other hand, staying stuck in an old way of thinking could make you sound stale. And copying a famous artist may sound unoriginal.
So, timelessness, which opposes datedness better than “current”ness, seems to be a delicate balance of subtle originality and bold creativity.
The truth is, timelessness is as subjective as datedness, so we could never definitively tell you how to find a timeless sound, but there are a few things that seem to help.
- Vintage sounds can anchor a song while simultaneously bringing a fresh perspective to a current style.
- Some things stand up over time, like spaciousness, great songwriting, or undeniable virtuosity.
- Songs seem more timeless when they don’t rely on gimmicks, or when those gimmicks are so original as to be unrepeatable.
- One element of a song may be timeless while others may be dating. Perhaps a lyric is timeless, but it’s sung over a cheesy 80s synth track. Maybe a super original track which will stand up forever is superimposed with slangy lyrics mentioning the year.
- Certain styles come and go in repeating patterns. Big reverb, for example.
Just Keep Making
Styles go with time periods, and that’s ok. Does that mean that as we age we become irrelevant? Of course not. As we evolve as individuals, our music evolves, and so does music in general. Half of the reason genres change over time is because the same people make them, and those people have grown. The other half, of course, is new blood.
Outside that reality, the notion of a timeless sound is as nebulous as datedness. Given this subjectivity, it would stand to reason that in order to achieve a timeless production, you’ll need to a) trust your gut, b) don’t chase trends and c) don’t worry about it too much.
The main thing we can say is stay true to yourself but let yourself change. Your songs will follow suit.
I make songs that sound dated, cheesy, and unoriginal. 😉 I try hard never to release those. Find out if I’m succeeding at aarontrumm.com/audio or ask me on Facebook or Instagram